Ode to Project Ara

Ever since Burger King hit the proverbial nail on the head with its famed “Have It Your Way” slogan back in 1974, everyone has known that people like to — well, have it their own way.

Linux Girl

Customization has been a growing trend in products large and small over the years, but until recently, smartphones were a glaring exception. Indeed, Linux Girl can no longer even count the number of times she’s asked for a big “L” and an image of Tux emblazoned on her device, but no! Not even for a superhero, she’s been told.

Pffft. So much for the perks of fame.

Luckily, hope is finally at hand thanks to none other than Motorola and Project Ara.

‘The Power to Decide’

“Our goal is to drive a more thoughtful, expressive and open relationship between users, developers and their phones, Motorola explained in its blog post announcing the new effort. “To give you the power to decide what your phone does, how it looks, where and what it’s made of, how much it costs, and how long you’ll keep it.”

Translation: it’s the design-your-own phone project so many of us have dreamed of — made possible, of course, through open hardware.

Linux Girl has been busy drawing up plans for her next superhero communicator ever since. As for those in the rest of the Linux blogosphere, well, there’s been more than a little excitement.

‘You Never Have to Settle’

“In a word, awesome,” enthused Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone, for example. “I love it. It takes away the need to settle.

“It seems no matter what device you decide on, there’s always something you wished was better,” Stone explained. “A faster processor or a better camera. This concept makes that whole problem moot. With Ara, you can choose each component, so you never have to settle for second rate.”

In fact, “this could literally redefine the mobile market, and I don’t mean like Apple claims it does,” he added. “I mean REALLY redefine it. It’s very exciting.”

‘I Would Buy One of These’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien saw it similarly.

“This is really exciting,” O’Brien agreed. “I would buy one of these when they come out. I am one of the people who still builds computers for my own use, and this extends that into the mobile space. Changing carriers? Just swap out the radio and you are good to go.”

Currently O’Brien is “just hanging on with a failing Galaxy Nexus and 6 weeks to go on my contract before I can jump to T-Mobile,” he noted. “If I had this phone I could just swap out the bad part and not be as stressed.”

Indeed, “I love the idea of being able to have all of the options I want since I tend to prefer a nice foldout keyboard,” chimed in consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

And again: “It’s the Phonebloks made for real,” suggested Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol. “Let’s hope the Ara phone will see the light of day.”

‘It Might Be the Ultimate Creation’

Modularity in smartphones could “go a long way to overcoming whatever inflexibility is left in the system of small, cheap computers,” blogger Robert Pogson suggested. “Rather than just tweaking software, the end user or retailer can mix and match bits of the hardware, too.

“This could be akin to the PCI slots in the old desktop PC,” he pointed out. “That became little used as the PC matured, but for something that fits in the hand, it might be the ultimate creation.”

So, “rather than the OEMs trying to push a hundred models of smartphone, they can push one framework and the components and let the market decide, Pogson added. “Everyone wins.”

‘I Know It Is the Right Thing’

As a technologist, Pogson does have some doubts, he admitted. For example, “will a bunch of ‘extra’ connectors increase the number of points of failure? Will an endoskeleton be tougher than the current exoskeletons?”

Still, “in my heart I know it is the right thing to do and I hope a vibrant ecosystem of small businesses spring forth developing components for this system,” he added. “That’s the right way to do IT, and Linux can handle anything.”

‘The Ultimate Insurance’

Looking ahead, “one possible future is that everyone will adopt the standard, and an Apple or Samsung smartphone will be a thing of the past,” Pogson suggested. “Everyone will buy some framework and add components from a hundred companies to make the smartphone or small, cheap computer that the consumer wants.

“This system could be the ultimate insurance that small, cheap computers are never monopolized,” he offered.

“That would be good for consumers, manufacturers, OEMs, and big and little software firms,” he pointed out. “Heck, there may yet be ways individuals with good ideas could start up making some module for the system with a very small investment. I could see businesses arising whose role is to assist smaller operations producing some new feature of some now unimagined smartphone.”

Bottom line? “It’s all good,” Pogson concluded. “I hope this project succeeds and is adopted widely.”

‘The Opposite Direction’

Not everyone was convinced, however.

“Ara is the opposite of the direction that phones should be going,” opined Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza.

“If they want to standardize something, though, it should be the battery,” Espinoza suggested. “What people really need is a more durable phone more resistant to the elements that lasts longer, especially since so many of today’s phones are worth holding onto — not a Rubik’s Cube of disparate bits.”

‘The Network Effect’

Moreover, “I honestly don’t see how anybody is gonna compete with Google at this point unless Google does something REALLY dumb like not hand the latest Android to the OEMs, and so far Google has shown no signs of being suicidally stupid,” offered Slashdot blogger hairyfeet.

“The network effect on Android is just insane — everyone from local banks to the big chains have Android apps, all the major email providers support Android, the network effect is just too strong at this point,” he said.

“Heck, even my 71-year-old dad ended up with an Android tablet as it was the one that supported all the apps he wanted to run and offered the best hardware for the best price,” hairyfeet pointed out. “If MSFT can throw away a couple of billion and not make a dent, I honestly don’t see how Motorola saying ‘We’re open!’ is really gonna do squat at this point as Android is open too and has the apps.”

‘A 100-Setting Microwave’

Last but not least, “I like it” was Slashdot blogger yagu’s first reaction. “I think it’s a cool idea and it would be fun to ‘roll your own’ in smartphone goodness.”

Yagu’s one concern: “I do wonder how this goes over with the general users,” he told Linux Girl. “Geeks LOVE to tinker, create, re-configure, and never stop tweaking their gadgets. Can the same be expected or true from people just looking for a new phone?

“A friend and colleague made an observation (brilliant) 20 years ago that stayed with me, served me well: ‘Nobody wants a 100-setting microwave, they just want low, medium and high,'” yagu recounted. “So, Ara may be a ‘100-setting microwave’ of the smartphones. There are so many things you can do with options, but nobody outside the techno-geek may care. I love the concept, I’m not sure it’s what people want.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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